Reflections on a New School Year

2011Symposium_1_2As the new school year begins, it seems fitting to call to mind the things teachers do to get themselves and their students off to a good start. Students need five things from teachers to succeed in school, and they are never more receptive to them than at the beginning of the year. Those five things are clear behavior expectations, classroom procedures, clear academic goals, interest, and confidence.

The last two things, interest and confidence, are arguably two of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student. Not all material covered in a class is naturally of interest to everyone, but teachers who make the uninteresting interesting, and the unexciting exciting can motivate students to try things, do things and accomplish things they would not otherwise. Teachers who do this love their content, love learning, and love teaching. They get others excited about what they are excited about; be it grammar, geometry, Gymnopedies or George Washington. Good teachers can make all of this fun without watering it down. The beginning of the school year is a great time to infuse this kind of fun into learning. For music classes, playing singing, rhythm or movement games is a great way to begin. It gets every student in a class doing something active together while providing review and practice of basic musical concepts and skills. Middle school students appreciate the chance to move around while learning, and younger children enjoy the sheer fun of playing a game.

The first three things, clear behavior expectations, procedures, and clear academic goals make the others possible. Theysinging-kids are not always observable to the untrained eye, but are in constant use. They are as important to learning as a good cinematographer and director are to a movie. They work off-camera but provide the direction and structure that keep actors in the right place at the right time, providing them with an opportunity to flourish practicing their art. Expectations, procedures, and goals do the same thing. They let everybody know what is expected, what to work for, how to know what is left to be done in order to succeed, and what success will look like.

Some students will have difficulty meeting behavioral expectations, and will need constant reminders. Giving these students logical reasons why you are expecting what you are expecting can help. No student wants to do badly, but many also don’t want to change their plan of doing what they want no matter what. The teacher must connect meeting behavior expectations and academic goals with student success, and make that success something the student wants. In this way, all five things work together as students desire to do well at what has been made interesting, and in order to do so are willing to meet expectations and goals. When my students say “I want to be able to do that,” then they have the reason they need to meet your expectations because they are now a means to getting what they want, which is what you want. When all of that aligns, it is a beautiful thing.

Procedures include how to enter the room, how to get to seating assignments, and how to pass papers out and how to collect papers. Also included are when to sharpen pencils, how to leave the classroom for the lavatory and then how to re-enter. Another is how to move from one seating plan to another; for example, from rows to group clusters for collaborative work. All of this needs to be practiced until the class can do it right repeatedly. A few minutes of time saved every day by efficient procedures saves hours of time for instruction and learning over the course of an academic year. Procedures also teach students how to be organized and efficient, both skills needed throughout life, particularly in the workplace and in managing a home. When a class moves through procedures rightly, there is time and structure for doing those fun learning activities like playing the rhythm, singing, and moving games mentioned earlier. Building these good habits into the beginning of the year will help keep things running well all year.

Academic goals are now clearly articulated in our Core Arts Standards. Anchor goals and essential questions for each of the four artistic processes provide clear direction for music teachers and their students. As a result of music classes, students will be able to select, analyze, interpret, rehearse, evaluate, and perform. They will be able to generate, develop, evaluate, revise and perform original musical works, respond to music they hear, and connect music and musical experiences.

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.

More on “What Is A Melody?”

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed a balanced definition of melody; one that was broad enough to include all music that contains melody, regardless of cultural difference, and one that was specific enough to exclude sequences of sound that by common consent are not musical. The fundamental way that humans learn what a thing is or what it is not, is by observing and testing alternatives. The full moon appears round, and the plate I eat my meals off of is also round, but my plate is not the moon. There are other factors that allow me to know that my plate, even though it is round like the full moon, is not the full moon. I can touch my plate, but not the moon. The moon stays in the sky, but my plate stays wherever I place it. I can touch my plate, but I cannot touch the moon.

In the same way, melodies have certain characteristics that other sequences of sound do not have. Melodies have tones that are mostly close together in frequency, which causes humans to group them together into a unified aural entity. Melodies tend to be centered around a mean frequency—that is, all of the tones in a melody tend to regress to the mean, and that mean frequency tends to be in the middle range of both human hearing capacity, and the ranges of the human voice and of musical instruments.

Melodies also tend to keep a balance between fulfilled and unfulfilled expectations. We derive pleasure from this balance, and so seek it out in our music. Mozart2The interesting thing here is that sometimes we expect things that are not really there, but we continue to expect them anyway. For example, Huron pointed out that the occurrence of a large melodic interval being followed by a smaller interval in the opposite direction only happens 70% of the time in music. Regression to the mean is what is actually occurring. But because nothing upon which our survival depends is at stake, our brains do not attempt the herculean task of calculating the mean and approaches to it in the music, but instead inductively approximate what regression to the mean would be as small interval in the opposite direction of a large interval. This demonstrates that we experience what we perceive or understand, which is not necessarily what is physically present.

Narmour observed that listeners expect small intervals to be followed by another small interval in the same direction. Research has shown that listeners indeed do expect this to happen, even though if often does not. Narmour defines small interval as a third or less. I am reminded of the Richard Rodgers song, “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.


Figure 1

The beginning of the melody of Do Re Mi by Richard Rodgers, notated with my system described in my post, What is a Convenient Shorthand for Music Notation Within Word Processing Software?


Do5. re4 mi5. do4 | mi5 do mi5 – | re5. mi4 fa4 fa4 mi4 re4 | fa7 etc.


After the third note, a descending third, and then three consecutive thirds follow two consecutive seconds, each in the opposite direction of the previous one. Clearly, the music does not continue in the same direction where small intervals are employed.

Another characteristic of melodies from both Western and non-Western cultures is the tendency to fall in pitch toward the end. For example, this can be observed in most Shenkerian analyses, in Native American songs, and in the Tanzanian song I linked to in my post yesterday.

The next time you hear a sequence of tones, ask yourself if it qualifies as a melody. This is a good activity for students. Is the motor and tire sounds of several cars driving by, a melody? Are the sounds of singing birds a melody? Many would say the birdsong is melody, but some would say it is not music. And this brings us to another interesting question: is all melody music? That one will have to wait for another day.